Handle With Care
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Sometimes when I can't sleep at night, instead of counting sheep, I count all the different places I've lived. When I was a kid, the Tippet and Richardson truck was a regular sight in our driveway. By the time I was 11, I'd already moved seven times. All our things shoved into boxes would be piled into the belly of a van by men in coveralls who made a sport out of how far they could throw the furniture. I can't remember a single move where something didn't arrive broken or scratched. "A bad omen," my mother would say as she unwrapped chipped porcelain Capodimonte. The truth was that I'd chipped a few of those ugly flowers myself playing Barbies, and only now did she notice. Best to go with the flow.
"Those guys are such jerks," I'd chime in to support the narrative that movers didn't care about her things, all the while wishing they'd been lost in transition. To me, they looked funereal.
My mother thought she had great taste. She prided herself on it, but the truth was that her taste was decidedly on the side of bad. I don't know what her influences were but suffice it to say that we had our fair share of gold plaster angels and Dresden figurines. Once I broke a plaster carving of a Roman goddess that stood on a gold pedestal, and I thought she was going to kill me. Her attachment to things of middle-class value was likely the result of growing up poor. A Royal Dalton figurine would send her swooning. Every time we put down roots, my mother would pull out the kitsch and proudly display it on the side tables and in the glass armoire in the one part of the house that no one was ever allowed to enter. In truth, of fact, maybe half a dozen guests were ever admitted into the living room to admire her collection. My mother considered her assortment of chachka to be so valuable that viewings were scheduled like priceless treasures at the Louvre.
I never heard my mother complain about moving, though I know it took a toll. Often, she would wax sentimental about the place we had left, the life we had made. Sometimes I think about whalers from the past leaving home and family behind for years at a time to live at sea. At what point did Ishmael feel the novelty of adventure wear off? According to the American Psychological Association, children who move frequently are more likely to perform poorly in school and have more behavioural problems. My grades were always good, and I was well behaved, but friendships never lasted. About two-years into any relationship, I'd begin the process of disentangling myself as I prepared for the inevitable upheaval that eventually came. There was option A) pick a fight or B) feign disinterest. Sleep-over invitations would dwindle and then fall off entirely. Ending friendships is never easy, and in some cases, moving was as good a way as any to cut the ties that bind.
It never occurred to me, until recently, that maybe the girls in my life felt the same way about me. Reading through an old journal of late, I came across an incident I'd completely forgotten about. I'd been invited to a sleep-over by a girl in my Grade 8 class named Diana. I vaguely recall her as one of the prettiest girls in middle school. She was fine-boned with wispy blond hair. She seemed like the kind of girl who was most likely to go to Vassar or Sarah Lawrence. Besides being empirically attractive, she was also smart. At the time of this incident, Diana was good friends with another girl in my grade 8 class, named Trinka. Trinka and I were inseparable. We'd been best friends since grade 5, and though I always felt like her less attractive sidekick, I assumed I was more talented and funnier. In my mind, it was these qualities that bought my way into the circle of popular girls. It wasn't until the sleep-over that I discovered it was otherwise. On the night of the party, my dad drove me to Diana's house. With a sleeping bag tucked under one arm and pillow under another, I strode excitedly to the front door and knocked. Nothing. I knocked again. Silence. Finally, after what seemed like a few minutes of awkward confusion, Diana came to the door and explained with a slightly sardonic tone that the party was tomorrow. Then she added, "You know, Trinka is sick, so if you don't want to come, that's okay."
"No," I smiled, "That's fine. I'll come anyway." Then happily headed back to the car.
It never occurred to me that I had only been invited because of Trinka; that she didn't really want me there at all. I have no real recollection of the actual event which took place the following evening. No doubt, I was tolerated, but no one at that party was ever my friend, and I was certainly never invited again.
Somewhere around grade 9 or 10, I came to the realization that I was that kid in the movie or novel that everyone thinks is weird. Up until then, I thought my extraordinary life made me interesting. Most other kids lived in the same house in the same town they'd been born in. But me? I was different. I'd lived in motel rooms…three times. Not glamourous suites either, but the kind of places where tacky prints of ducks flying over cattails hung over the bed. Upon careful inspection, they reminded a person that even inanimate objects are wont to escape ugly surroundings. Once, we lived in a mansion that had a painting of the owner in the foyer hanging over a fireplace, and the eyes followed you everywhere you went. Once, we rented a home in the middle of the countryside with nothing around for miles. I had a bedroom with French doors that opened out onto a meadow. Alas, the furnace broke down, and as we all huddled in the living room trying to use each other's bodies for heat, my mother put her foot down and insisted that we move into the city. The city, in this case, was more like a crossroad. It consisted of a bakery, a hair salon, a small restaurant, an IGA, and a gas station. I felt like we were suddenly oh, so cosmopolitan. For a time, we lived in my grandmother's basement, where I learned classical music's abilities to lift a person out of their surroundings. It was there that Bach and Beethoven helped me overcome the smell of mildew and the sight of wood panelling. Then finally and for a brief time, a house of our own. When that ended, along with my parent's marriage, the thrill of moving had lost its sheen. My Dickensian lifestyle no longer seemed romantic. I wasn't that cool kid who lived in all these interesting places. I was a constant reminder of what could happen to you if, by the luck of the draw, your parents, and by association, you, pulled the short end of the stick.
When moving, I find it best to leave the old abode the way you leave a good book. Remember the good bits and then move on. Hoping the next book you read will be as good as the one you've finished only sets you up for disappointment. Likewise, you can't force your will on a new house no matter how much you liked the old hallway, the old staircase, the old living room window. Let the new space tell you what it wants. Otherwise, in my experience, by the time you've settled in, it will be time to move again. In the instance of the apartment building, I had to resign myself to the fact that from here on in no amount of Royal Dalton or Royal Staffordshire would ever make up for the fact that my mother slept on the couch. It was now apparent that being different was not a bargaining chip towards popularity. To make matters worse, it was affecting my relationship with Trinka. On Friday nights when she'd invite me over, I would escape the reality of unkept hallways and concrete walls and spend almost 24 hours in paradise. To me, Trinka's family was perfect. They lived in this neat A-frame house with an open concept kitchen (very progressive for its time). They had a sunken family room that I adored and a fireplace. The fact that I couldn't reciprocate invitations made things awkward and wasn't helped when she confessed that she didn't like coming to the apartment at all…even for an afternoon. If and when she did come over, we would spend all our time at the drug store down the block perusing the isles and reading magazines that offered suggestions on how to improve upon lives that already looked better than mine. The writing was on the wall, and I knew it. She was displaying all the behaviour I used when disentangling myself from others. We fought over nothing. We rarely spoke on the phone, and instead of spending every weekend together, it shifted to every other weekend, and then once a month.
The last night I spent at Trinka's was memorable. We baked cookies in her perfect kitchen. We read comic books in her perfect bedroom, we watched television in her perfect family room and finally sat down to a perfect dinner with her perfect family. It was perfect, that is, until the vegetables arrived at the table. As I recall, the food fight began when I jokingly said, "Please pass the potatoes, or what's left of them," to her brother, with whom I enjoyed sparring. Significantly older than I, he frequently teased me, and I liked the attention.
One of her other brothers chimed in, "None of my friends would be allowed to talk like that at the dinner table."
An argument ensued, followed by food flying, and a quart of milk poured over their father's head. (I swear this is all true.)
As the fight moved into the living room, someone began playing on the piano:
Marvel the Mustang,
He's almost for real.
Just saddle him up,
With spurs on your heels
No winding, No batteries,
Marvel the Mustang to win the day.
As chairs flew, and food hit walls, and people screamed at each other, I had the distinct impression that we were now in a Stanley Kubrick film and taking my cue from The Shining, I hid in her parents closet in the upstairs bedroom until things died down and someone came looking for me. Needless to say, I was taken home immediately, and I never saw Trinka again.
That night as I sipped hot chocolate on my mother's imitation cabriole sofa between objects d'art, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. We weren't perfect, but apparently behind the facade of single family dwellings with manicured lawns and Elizabeth Arden doors, nobody was. At least in our apartment I was safe from flying projectiles.
As I settled myself for bed, my mother finally asked me what happened?
"I'm not sure," I said, "I made a joke about the potatoes, and the next thing I knew, the house was in chaos."
"Joke?" my mother asked, "Or sarcastic remark?"
"A bit of both?" I hesitated and then asked, "You don't suppose she planned that whole thing to end our friendship once and for all, do you?"
My mother paused and shrugged her shoulders. "Anything's possible," she said, "Anything's possible."